Ralph Vaughan Williams: 49th Parallel Prelude
Unlike in America, the British film industry in the 1930-40s did not specifically employ specialist film composers to write scores for films. Instead, popular concert composers were asked, as was the case for the 1941 war drama 49th Parallel. In 1940, conductor Muir Mathieson approached Ralph Vaughan Williams about writing the score for this film. The film was part of the government’s wartime policy to use cinema to rally up the support from the nation. Vaughan Williams was happy to oblige, and this score became his first of 11 scores for film.
The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mathieson and George Stratton, recorded Vaughan Williams’ music for the film. At the time, Vaughan Williams was regarded as the most popular English composer, which inevitably brought forward the popularity of the film.
The Prelude is the first piece of music heard in the film, and has remained the most popular piece from the score. The warm strings and brass that play in unison to open the piece set the scene for the pastoral string theme up next. This memorable theme is threaded throughout the score, but lives in its full glory in the Prelude. Vaughan Williams’ rich scoring, which is decorated by timpani rolls, bold brass and warm woodwind creates a really broad sound.
Not necessarily the most upbeat of works, the Prelude is uplifting and emotional, especially as it reaches the climax at the end of the work. The triumphant last few chords are bold, but humble at the same time. A quintessential pastoral piece from Vaughan Williams, and now a much-loved concert work, Prelude to the 49th Parallel is a British classic.
Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020